August 25, 2008, marks the 90th anniversary of the birth of composer and conductor Leonard Bernstein, although he won't be celebrating it with us -- had Bernstein David Diamond's personal habits and healthcare, then perhaps he would be. Nevertheless, Carnegie Hall hasn't forgotten the occasion, as they have collaborated with Sony to prepare the newly minted 10-CD set, The Original Jacket Collection: Bernstein Conducts Bernstein. It contains every album that Leonard Bernstein made of his own music for CBS Masterworks, beginning with his 1950 recording of the Symphony No. 2, "The Age of Anxiety" -â€“ predating his tenure with the New York Philharmonic by nearly a decade -â€“ to the ballet Dybbuk in 1974, recorded with the New York City Ballet Orchestra several years after his departure. This was Bernstein's peak period in terms of his popularity, fame, credibility, and celebrity, although once he started with the New York Philharmonic his work as a composer came to a screeching halt. A heavy concentration of these recordings are centered in 1960 and 1963, indicating an effort in these years to schedule Bernstein's original work in large blocks amid the staggering number of recordings of works by other composers Bernstein made on his CBS contract.
This set is amazingly comprehensive; both mono and stereo versions of Serenade, The Age of Anxiety, and Fancy Free are included. While standard practices usually dictate a choice between alternate mono and stereo versions that invariably goes in favor of stereo, often mono recordings contain better performances; it's certainly best to have both when possible. Moreover, it is great to have access to Zino Francescatti's rendering of Serenade in addition to the more famous and oft reissued version with Isaac Stern. With The Age of Anxiety, in addition to a technological difference, there an alternate version of the symphony itself, as it was revised by Bernstein in 1965 at pianist Philippe Entremont's request; the latter version is more readily available than the original -- controversy remains as to which was the better idea.
The discs themselves correspond exactly with already issued entries in Sony's "Bernstein Century" series. Each individual disc is graced with miniature versions of vintage album covers that roughly correspond to the disc's content; "roughly," as each disc is maximized, save the two discs of Bernstein's Mass, appearing as originally programmed. The quality of reproduction on these little album covers is excellent, though to read the liner notes you will need a magnifying glass â€“- the original liners are nevertheless legible except for the libretto to Trouble in Tahiti. Within the booklet, there are purported excerpts "from the original liner notes" throughout, though these are not original notes, but are culled instead from CD re-issues. However, it appears that Sony did finally manage to locate the original album art to Bernstein's Mass, for years believed lost in the CBS archives. The booklet could be organized a little better; you can spend quite some time thumbing back and forth through the booklet trying to figure out what is on which disc. Sound quality in Bernstein's Columbia recordings varies with the general fortunes of the CBS Masterworks division; in mono, the sound is inexplicably gritty and shrill, early stereo recordings sound terrific, though the later they are, the more this tends to decline. Some successful effort is made in terms of conveying the Quadraphonic perspective of Bernstein's Mass in a conventional CD format.
To some extent, Bernstein's Columbia recordings of his own work are compromised by hasty preparation and Bernstein's own seeming inability to exploit what was best about it. There are two Serenades and two Anxieties, but from Candide, only the overture, and from West Side Story, only the Symphonic Dances as arranged by a third party are present. Dybbuk isn't viewed in any quarter as being one of Bernstein's signature achievements, and just about everyone who has recorded Chichester Psalms â€“- even Bernstein himself in 1977 for Deutsche Grammophon -â€“ has found a way to improve on the 1965 effort included here. However, Trouble in Tahiti is a small miracle; an excellent recording of a work he didn't undertake very often, and one would have to lobby hard for a recording of Prelude, Fugue and Riffs that's superior to Bernstein's with Benny Goodman. With The Original Jacket Collection: Bernstein Conducts Bernstein, the whole is better than the sum of its parts; for purposes of study and appreciation of his recorded work in depth, having all of these selections in one package is invaluable. Likewise, for Carnegie Hall to have supported this project is a touching birthday tribute to a man who essentially gave up his personal artistic pursuits to put butts in their seats, night after night, for ten years running.
Symphonic Dances from West Side Story - The Rumble (recorded 1960)
Fancy Free - Enter Three Sailors (recorded 1956)
Trouble in Tahiti - Prelude (recorded 1973)
Mass - A Simple Song (recorded 1971)
The ultimate resource for anything relating to Leonard Bernstein is the long-running The Leonard Bernstein Website.